In their quest for Alaska prep softball trophies, Kenai Peninsula teams haven’t had much trouble navigating their own conference.
In the Northern Lights Conference that houses teams from Soldotna, Kenai Central, Homer, Kodiak and Houston, the regular season and tournament banners have come in bunches for the peninsula squads.
But the one obstacle they’ve struggled with the most has been state. The Division II field is loaded with Southeast teams that make mincemeat of rival conferences.
Since the state moved to two separate classifications for large and small schools in 2005, the state championship final has had a Southeast representative every single year, with eight of those 14 years featuring a title-game lockout between Southeast schools. The Southeast has won all but two of those titles, with Homer in 2006 and Kodiak in 2008 the lone outcasts.
Homer has never had a problem of getting to state (the Mariners have made it 18 of the last 19 years), but it’s been a problem of going deep into the tournament and winning it all. The lone state softball title came for Homer in 2006, and last made it to the championship game in 2012, which culminated with a loss to Sitka.
But with the dawn of a new season, hopes of breaking through are rampant.
“I think they’re really excited about that,” said Homer head coach Bill Bell, who enters his 15th season with the Mariners.
Last year, Homer endured a 2-3 run at state, including two blowout losses to the eventual state finalists, Thunder Mountain and Ketchikan, by a combined score of 41-1.
“The Southeast is just crazy,” he said. “They have the attitude of supporting softball down there, they get strong athletes, they work throughout the winter, they have good leaders and community support.
“You get the feeling in the NLC that we just exist behind the curtain.”
Local coaches explain that the big difference between peninsula and Southeast teams lies in the number of players that focus solely on softball season and the amount of offseason work and resources that are available. Bell said he tries to get a handful of players throwing and fielding indoors over the winter months, but basketball and other extracurricular activities put a drain on that practice time.
Soldotna head coach Kelli Knoebel said that offseason road trips play a big role as well.
“Game experience is huge,” Knoebel said. “And if you’re getting kids with, I don’t know … 60 to 80 games, then my kids are getting 14 to 20 games, that’s the element you’re trying to do your best in.”
Knoebel said many times, it’s about making the most of a narrow window of opportunity to practice and prepare for the short spring season.
“I think it’s (about) being creative,” she said. “It’s about all trying to come together.”
The Kenai Kardinals, which have never been to the Division II state tournament in its 14-year existence, are one of those programs looking to break out of its own conference, and Kenai head coach John Manley is optimistic about taking that first step.
“I think our conference is getting tighter,” Manley said.
Kenai plays host for the NLC tournament this year, scheduled for May 23 to 25 at Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park. The top two teams qualify to the state tournament held May 30 to June 1 at Cartee Fields in Anchorage.
So what do peninsula teams have in store for 2019?
Bill Bell enters year 15 of his run as Homer softball head coach. The reigning NLC champs only graduated three seniors off the 2018 squad, most notably left-fielder Sam Moonin, as well as Libby Fabich and Miranda Martin.
This year, the lone senior is catcher Brianna Hetrick, who Bell praised as one of the top hitters on the team. Hetrick already has a home run on the board this season at last week’s Island Invitational in Kodiak.
Chief among returning players is Northern Lights Conference MVP Annalyn Brown, a junior right-handed pitcher who Bell is hopeful will make a big impact for the Mariners in the pitching circle.
When Brown needs a break pitching, Bell said he has returning junior Becca Chapman in the fold, as well as a new face in freshman Zoe Adkins.
The Homer infield sports a younger look with sophomores Haylee Owen at first and Hannah Hatfield at second, and junior Kaitlyn Johnson at shortstop. Bell said third base is still up in the air, but freshman Kaylin Anderson looks like a good fit, while juniors Elizabeth Love and Kitri Classen could also get starts on the hot corner.
The Mariners outfield will likely position freshman Delilah Harris in left, sophomore Grace Godfrey in center and Adkins in right, when she’s not pitching.
Kelli Knoebel returns for her seventh year with the Stars, and said the program is looking healthy at 25 roster names.
“We barely had enough for a varsity team two years ago,” Knoebel recalled.
While SoHi will be missing the experienced arms of graduated seniors Taralynn Frates and Madelyn Barkman, the Stars still return a hungry crop of sophomores and juniors that gained valuable varsity innings last year.
After missing out on state in 2018, Knoebel said the opportunity to play better was what stayed on her mind after the region tournament. Soldotna lost to Kodiak in the region semifinals last spring, but Knoebel said SoHi is harboring a fresher mentality this year.
“I think they understand that it’s big team, little me,” she said. “The big theme is embracing the journey and realizing that sometimes, failure is part of the game. If you look at it as an opportunity to grow and fine tune yourself for the team, things can grow.
“I think the kids are really buying into the culture.”
The big returning players on the team include junior Bailey Smith, senior Bailey Berger and junior Casey Earll, all of which have the experience to lead the Stars in game situations.
The pitching staff features primarily a three-arm rotation of Earll, who is making the move from catcher, junior Janna Kriegr and sophomore Ashlyn Asp.
Taking over for Earll at catching will be junior Ashley McDonald, formerly a shortstop.
Smith will return as first baseman and is joined by senior Lillian Gomez at second and sophomore Macie Schroeder and senior Bailey Berger on the left side of the infield. Knoebel said it’s still a battle to who will take which position exactly.
The SoHi outfield will primarily feature junior Kylie Loop, sophomore Harley Thomas and senior Casey Card. Knoebel said junior Estrella Slats will likely come in as a utility option.
Knoebel is joined by assistant coach James Knoebel, while Scott Knoebel and Taralynn Frates will occasionally join the assistant staff when available.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Manley starts his third year as head coach of the Kardinals.
After securing the fourth seed in the region last year, Manley said the Kards could jump up a spot or two this year if they catch the right breaks.
“It really just depends on how far and how well our pitchers come around as the season progresses,” he said. “I think we’ll end up being good hitters. We’re not there yet, because we’ve only been outside a couple of weeks and haven’t tested it against live pitching.
“Time will tell.”
Losing senior pitcher Savannah Jones won’t do Kenai any favors, but Manley said he likes what he sees so far in sophomores Lexi Reis and Kaylee Lauritsen. Both are fresh off a state run with the Kenai girls basketball team, but have quickly gotten up to speed with the softball program. Manley said when they’re not pitching, Reis will likely be at first base and Lauritsen will man the outfield.
Kenai’s three returning seniors include Leinana Rapoza, Kylan Lakshas and Nereid Phillips, but behind them follow a large group of sophomores. Rapoza will play second base, Phillips will be third and Lakshas will catch.
The sophomore crowd includes first and third baseman Taylor Carver, shortstop Zaharah Wilshusen and infielder Abby Avery. Junior Tamarah Frates could also see a mix of starts in the infield and outfield, while freshmen Kaidence Harvey and Andy Galloway will likely be outfielders.